What made you write Isaac and Miles' story (and it's really hard to call it that because it's the story of so many characters beyond them, too)?

In the early 2000s, a childhood friend of mine was murdered. Late one night, he showed up at his ex-girlfriend’s house demanding to see his young children. His ex’s new boyfriend was at the house and an altercation took place. My friend was stabbed over twenty times while his children watched. The boyfriend put cigarettes out on him while he died. The Concrete began with his story in mind. Not necessarily the murder, but the effect the murder had on his children. To be there. To witness it. How does a child recover from that kind of trauma? How do they move on? How do they live? These questions gave birth to the novel, but the deeper I delved into the drafting process, The Concrete twisted, turned, and evolved into something much more sprawling.

Why Grand Rapids?

I share custody of my children from a previous relationship. The year before I started writing The Concrete, their mother moved to the southeast side of Grand Rapids. That same year, two people I know personally were shot on the southeast side. The following year, a teenager ran down the street firing a pistol while my son was playing in the front yard. The year I was wrapping up revisions, someone was murdered two doors down from where my children lived. As a father you worry; as a writer you brood.

 

In the early drafts of The Concrete, the southeast side served as a backdrop, or a mural for the story. It evolved into a character, a villain, and I think in many ways the most dangerous kind of villain, a villain with no face, an oppressor, an enemy the characters in this novel have to overcome but cannot see.

 

Grand Rapids is a beautiful city, with a beautiful waterfront. The southeast side is not representative of the city as a whole. The Concrete shows place, I think, on a micro-level—it is a portrait of a neighborhood within a city. I hope readers are able to differentiate. I hope Grand Rapids natives are made more aware of the violence and bleak circumstances lurking about in the belly of the city.

What do you want this book to mean to people?

I’m a bit cynical when it comes to humans. People disappoint me. We all have greatness in us. We all have gifts from God. People take these gifts for granted. People waste their lives. The Concrete shows the struggle of people. It shows people wasting their gifts or trying desperately to use those gifts. But even in the bleak landscape of this novel, there is hope.

 

There is always hope.

 

It is never too late.

 

If a reader is convicted in that way—if a reader sees Joy Green waste her gift, sees Jackson Carter drinking away his regrets—or if a reader is inspired by Miles Davis Green’s relentless pursuit of his dream, or Jackson Carter’s victory over alcoholism, maybe a reader can be inspired in their own life. Maybe dreams can be rekindled or self-sabotage can be halted.

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